About Me

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I am Professor of Digital Humanities at the University of Glasgow and Theme Leader Fellow for the 'Digital Transformations' strategic theme of the Arts and Humanities Research Council. I tweet as @ajprescott.

This blog is a riff on digital humanities. A riff is a repeated phrase in music, used by analogy to describe a improvisation or commentary. In the 16th century, the word 'riff' meant a rift; Speed describes riffs in the earth shooting out flames. The poet Jeffrey Robinson points out that riff perhaps derives from riffle, to make rough.

Maybe we need to explore these other meanings of riff in thinking about digital humanities, and seek out rough and broken ground in the digital terrain.

25 January 2012

The Battle of the Books

Many apologies for my neglect of this blog. I've been very preoccupied with researching and writing my inaugural lecture at King's College which I am giving tonight. The text of the lecture will be available here sometime tomorrow.

The timing of my lecture is due to our wish to link the King's College event to another inaugural lecture in the digital humanities, by my friend and colleague Professor Claire Warwick, the Head of the Department of Information Studies at University College London. Claire's very successful lecture last night (which crashed the server for the live stream, such was the interest) playfully explored the effectiveness of the inaugural lecture as a means of communicating knowledge. She pointed out how much work in the digital humanities is conducted through networking and collaboration, and suggested that the ex cathedra declarations of an inaugural lecture were not particularly useful in the context of such research. In particular, she stressed the need to acknowledge the contribution of the team and argued that there was a need to look at formats (particularly online formats) which gave the team much more visibility and recognition.

Sitting in the Gustave Tuck lecture theatre last night, my mind ran back nearly twenty years to a previous inaugural lecture by a new Head of what was then called the School of Library, Archive and Information Studies at UCL, Robin Alston, who I remembered in a previous post on this blog. Robin had recently arrived from his work as consultant at The British Library, so the audience was swelled by many curators from the British Library. As previously noted, Robin was a great pioneer in the development of many of the digital resources we nowadays take for granted as a result of his work with the English Short Title Catalogue. Robin had a reputation as a visionary and the audience were full of anticipation. We were not disappointed - Robin gave a characteristically inspiring, enthralling and thought-provoking performance. I remember it was the first time I had ever heard of this term 'surfing' applied to the Internet. Robin's argument was a challenging one: that there were great risks attached to commercially driven programmes of mass digitisation that did not respect traditional bibliographic skills and arguments.

I recently revisited Robin's lecture, entitled The Battle of the Books, for a piece I wrote on transformations in the library for a new collection just published by Facet and edited by Lorna Hughes, called Evaluating and Measuring the Value, Use and Impact of Digital Collections. Rereading it after all this time I was astonished by how prescient Robin's comments were, particularly in the light of the Google Book Settlement controversies. I liked this quote:

"Of course it is possible to digitize and index the contents of all the world's important libraries and archives. In the 1930s Eugene Power demonstrated that it was possible to persuade libraries that we they needed was microfilm and created that juggernaut of unselective micropublishing University Microfilms. The question we must answer is, who could benefit from such a colossal enterprise? Commerce or knowledge? Are libraries in the control of visionaries or are they in the control of irresistible economic forces which we ignore at our peril?"

These are still very pertinent questions, and I will be considering them from a different angle in my own lecture tonight. Robin's Battle of the Books is still worth reading, and it is available here. If my own lecture proves a thought-provoking and as pertinent to our current digital dilemmas as Robin's, I will be a very happy man.


  • Annette Strauch says:
    25 January 2012 at 07:13

    Good to hear about all these lectures and the networking in the field of DH. Good luck for later! I think there are great risks attached to commercially driven programmes of mass digitisation. Good and still meaningful quote today you mention in this post. Knowledge should be for all, and institutions need a strategy. This is not always the case. The problem can be the government of the individual country. The problem can also be mismanagement of an institution. The users will show in the end if the institutions have thought about your questions raised or not. Ancients and Moderns come together in DH as they do in Swift's "The Battle of the Books". Let it be more than a "Tale of a Tub". Meanwhile I learn more about research data management. Remember the allegory of the spider and the bee.

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